One of the most stunning canvasses in Venice's Accademia art gallery was painted by Paolo Veronese in 1573. Originally titled The Last Supper of Christ, the room-sized painting depicts a strange collection of near-life-size figures either seated or milling about near Jesus at a long banquet table. In addition to garden variety Apostles, Veronese kicked it up a notch with a few dwarfs, some armed German soldiers, drunks, dogs, and clowns, among other things. It was the fifth Last Supper he had painted in his career to that point, and maybe he was getting a little tired of the subject. Why not have a little fun?
The friars of Santi Giovanni and Paolo didn't see it that way. It wasn't the painting they commissioned or wanted. When Veronese refused to change it, they had him hauled before the McCarthy Commission of the day: the Inquisition.
What follows is an edited transcript of that appearance. It's quite funny, though I doubt Veronese saw the situation that way. You can imagine the stern, crabby, hyper-serious Inquisitors in their 30-pound wigs and gaudy silk outfits glaring down at the artist. And you can hear Veronese wriggling and sweating.
But what's really interesting is the epic, eternal struggle between humorless authority and a youthful artistic spirit. And you can hear the collision of two very different views of art, one literal and reason-bound, the other highly intuitive and imagination-driven.
There was a happy ending. The Inquisition ordered him to make changes. He agreed, but amazingly, in the end, the only thing he did was to paint the words "FECIT D. COVI. MAGNVS LEVI- LVCAE CAP. V" on the canvas, effectively retitling the work Feast At The House of Levi, after a more party-friendly event that found in the Gospel of Luke.
The transcript appears below, and has been edited for length
Inquisitors: Do you know why you are brought before us?
Veronese: No my Lords.
Inquisitors: Can you imagine why?
Veronese: I can well imagine why.
Inquisitors: Say what you imagine.
Veronese: On account of what was said to me by ... the Prior of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, for he told me he [had recently appeared before the Inquisitors] and you had instructed him to have the figure of the Magdalen inserted in the place where there is now a dog.
Inquisitors: To which picture do you refer?
Veronese: To a painting of the Last Supper ...
Inquisitors: Where is this painting?
Veronese: In the refectory of the friars of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
Inquisitors: On this Lord's Supper, did you depict any servants?
Veronese: There is a master of the house, Simon, and below this figure I have also put a steward, and made it look as though he has come for his own entertainment to see how the feast is going. There are many other figures which I cannot recall, for it is a long time since I put up the picture.
Inquisitors:What is the meaning of the man with a bleeding nose?
Veronese: I meant him to be a servant with a nosebleed on account of some mishap.
Inquisitors: What is the meaning of those armed men, dressed in the German style, each with a halberd in his hands?
Veronese: I must say a few words here.
We painters take the same licence as do poets and madmen, and so I made those two halberdiers, one of them drinking and the other eating, next to a blind staircase, and they were put there to be ready to perform some task, for I thought it fitting that the owner of the house (who I was told was a great and rich man) should have such servants.
Inquisitors: And that man dressed as a clown, with a parrot on his fist, for what purpose did you paint him on the canvas?
Veronese: For ornament, as one does.
Inquisitors: Who are at the Lord's table?
Veronese: The 12 apostles.
Inquisitors: [What is the man three seats over from Jesus doing?]
Veronese: Attending to his teeth with a fork.
Inquisitors: Did anyone commission you to paint Germans and clowns and the like?
Veronese: No. My commission was to adorn the picture as I saw fit, for it is large and can include many figures, or so I thought.
Inquisitors: Do you do as your fancy takes you, without any discretion or judgment?
Veronese: No, my lords.
Inquisitors: Do you think it proper to depict clowns, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and other lewd things at the Lord's Last Supper?
Veronese: No, my lords.
Inquisitors: Then why did you paint them?
Veronese: I did them on the understanding that they are not within the place where the supper is being held.
At the conclusion, the record reads:
Master Paolo should be compelled to correct and amend the picture considered at the session ... within three months ... at his expense, and under threat of penalties to be imposed by the Holy Office. And so they decreed with all due propriety.